July 14, 2017 10:55AM


Neither of the defense bills (National Defense Authorization Acts, NDAAs) wending their way through the House and Senate grant the Pentagon the authority to reduce excess infrastructure. Military leaders have asked for such permission for many years, but Congress has stubbornly refused. An amendment sponsored by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) would have stripped the language from the House NDAA that blocks a new Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round. That amendment failed yesterday by a vote of 175-248.

Before the vote, the House Armed Services Committee issued a "BRAC Facts" one pager to preempt the McClintock amendment and other attempts to resolve the impasse between Congress and military leaders over BRAC.

The one pager includes a few facts, but is selective to the point of misleading. For example, it states that Secretary of Defense James Mattis "does not have confidence in DOD BRAC assessments." And quotes Mattis as saying "I am not comfortable right now that we have a full 20 some percent excess." 

But the SecDef also said that a new BRAC round could save the Pentagon $2 billion a year. In written testimony last month, Mattis called BRAC "a cornerstone of our efficiencies program" and necessary to "ensure we do not waste taxpayer dollars." Granting the Pentagon authority to reduce overhead, Mattis continued, "is essential to improving our readiness by minimizing wasted resources and accommodating force adjustments." He observed, "Of all the efficiency measures the Department has undertaken over the years, BRAC is one of the most successful and significant."

Meanwhile, deputy defense secretary Robert Work has also called for BRAC. "Spending resources on excess infrastructure does not make sense," he wrote last year. In short, it simply isn't accurate to imply that current Pentagon leaders doubt whether the military has more bases than it needs. And that is true even if the military were to grow in the next few years, as the HASC claims it must.

There are other problems with the HASC BRAC fact sheet. It notes that the "FY18 NDAA, which does not authorize a BRAC round, passed through Committee with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 60 to 1." But that doesn't mean that 60 members supported everything in the bill. Indeed, 19 HASC members voted in favor of the McClintock amendment.    

HASC ranking member Adam Smith (D-WA) also attempted to amend the NDAA to allow for a BRAC, but his effort was blocked by the rules committee. During floor debate in support of the McClintock amendment, Smith scolded his fellow members. "We cannot afford for parochial interests to get in the way of what is in the best interests of our troops. We need a BRAC." And he dismissed claims that a BRAC won't save taxpayers' dollars as "just factually ridiculous.” 

But an interesting divide might be opening, as well, between HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and the chair and ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Bryan Bender at PoliticoPro reported that Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jack Reed (D-RI) "are preparing to offer an amendment to this year's defense policy bill authorizing a new round of military base closures."

A summary of the McCain-Reed proposal explains that it "is a significant departure from the 2005 BRAC round and includes a number of improvements which are all specifically designed to address common critiques from 2005." The amendment was a bipartisan effort by SASC staff, in consultation "with the GAO, DOD, [Association of Defense Communities], CRS, former BRAC commissioners, various think tanks, [and] former DOD staff, etc." A recent coalition letter that I spearheaded, signed by over 45 individuals from more than 35 different organizations, reveals the breadth and depth of support for a new BRAC round. 

Looking at the politics of BRAC on Capitol Hill, one could chalk up past Republican resistance to the fact that the requests were coming from an Obama administration that the GOP routinely accused of gutting the U.S. military. But now the Trump administration is requesting authority to eliminate unnecessary and underutilized facilities, even as it calls for more Pentagon spending. And Mattis has a lot more clout on Capitol Hill than his predecessors. If he gets behind the McCain-Reed proposal, the military might finally have a chance to redirect taxpayer resources to where they are most needed.